What Happens When You Get Sick While Traveling?

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Every time I come home from a trip to Vegas, I get sick for a few days.  I call it the Vegas Flu. Four days and four nights of partying, little sleep, far too much Red Bull, far too many free tequila shots from groups of handsome guys, and adding a major change in climate?  No wonder I get sick.

So I shouldn’t be surprised, in retrospect, that I developed the Vang Vieng flu.

After my second night in Hanoi, I woke up in my dorm room with my throat on fire, my nose stuffed up, a raging fever and chills so violent I couldn’t stop convulsing.

My first thought?  Even though it felt like strep, I thought —


Wouldn’t you think the same thing after a few months in rural Laos and Cambodia?

I immediately got myself to SOS International Clinic in Hanoi. (A word to the wise: the clinic has changed locations since the last Lonely Planet publication, but you can get a free cab from the old one to the new one.)

I staggered into the clinic, feeling like I was on my deathbed.  Even though it was a Sunday, a doctor was able to see me right away.  He examined me and planned to do some bloodwork.

That’s when things got interesting.

If I were at home in Boston, here’s how it would have gone down: A voluptuous, no-nonsense Caribbean woman would have taken my blood in about thirty seconds flat, fierce and swift.  I would have been shown out of the room, paid my $30 copay and waited a few business days for my results.

In Hanoi?  A nurse took my blood as I lay on a hospital bed.  I didn’t even feel it.  I was still shivering violently, so another nurse brought me a blanket and set up a screen so that I would have some privacy.

The bloodwork only took thirty minutes to process, so the doctor encouraged me to stay in bed.  “Just relax and try to get some sleep,” he told me.


The nurse brought me some Pandamol to reduce my fever, and by the time the bloodwork was processed, it had dropped 0.6 degrees already.

The doctor read me my results:

No malaria.  No dengue. A slightly elevated level of infection, but nothing else.


The bill: $373.

I nearly keeled over.

I’m hoping that my insurance will cover it.  I’ve filed my claim and am waiting to hear the results.

Well, two days later, I still felt exactly the same.  And I knew it was strep. I’ve had strep a few times before, and it felt like strep.

I could have gone back to the doctor and paid through the nose once again.  But I didn’t want to.

I went to the pharmacy, picked up some penicillin, and within two hours of taking it, my sore throat felt better.  48 hours later, it had disappeared.

A few weeks have passed since this happened.  I spent much longer than I planned in Hanoi, simply recuperating, before moving on to Halong Bay and Hue.  The throat has cleared up and although I’m still coughing a bit, I’m almost completely back to normal.

I’m incredibly lucky that this is the sickest I’ve been so far. I credit that to paying attention to my body, slowly easing into exotic food, and staying away from any food that looks a bit dodgy.  When I need sleep, I sleep (most of the time).  Also, having work to do keeps me from partying nonstop.

Let’s have a toast to being healthy.  It takes only a little bit of effort.

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40 thoughts on “What Happens When You Get Sick While Traveling?”

  1. Getting sick abroad is terrible… on my last days in Cuba, I also got sick and fainted a couple of times in our office. Nice. I was lucky to be traveling for business. I didn’t have to worry for anything. I never saw any bill. The only problem was finding the medicine the doctor told me to take… as pharmacies usually only have 1/10th of what you usually would need to have.
    While my colleagues were drinking mojitos, I drank a sweet orange serum and slept. But at least I got back healthy again.

  2. Getting sick abroad is so scary! I hope your travel insurance covers it. I got stung by a bee in mexico and had a terrible allergic reaction. I was afraid my throat would close up and had no idea what to do. Luckily, some over the counter stuff cured me.

  3. $373! Shit the bed!! :O But I suppose if you were worried it was malaria it could’ve been much worse, in hindsight. I hope you get it back and glad you’re still, you know-alive and all that.

  4. Yikes, scary! At least you went to the doctor and ruled out worse things, though, even if it ended up costing you a lot. Better safe than sorry!

    I can’t imagine getting really, really sick while traveling on my own. A friend of mine moved to Chile on his own last summer, and after a couple of months came down with Typhoid Fever. Talk about scary! Typhoid is nasty, and lasts weeks… I can’t imagine dealing with that on my own!

    So glad that you’re feeling better.

  5. I’m glad you’re feeling better and assumed it was strep, which it probably was if that medicine cured it! It must be weird feeling awful while you’re away traveling. I can’t even believe the hospital bill! crossing my fingers that your insurance covers most of that.

  6. Except for a couple of food poisonings I haven’t been sick on the road yet (knock on wood), but this is my biggest concern when traveling. What if I get sick in some rural area? My friend has been in a hospital in India for 2 days without knowing what he had or what the doctors were saying, they just took blood and gave him medicines, but nobody could explain what the problem was. This must have been really scary, but in the end it was just dehydratation.

  7. I hope they pay, for your sake. But it’s useful to know that most insurance providers insist on consenting to treatment before you incur the costs — they often have preferred providers in a specific town. So, b4 you go to a clinic, ring your insurer.

    Also, because of the excess most policies hold, you’re generally best off going to a local hospital and taking treatment there, which will cost you a fraction of anything targeting Westerners… We’ve used local doctors on a couple of occasions, and they’ve been great.

    Anyway, glad you’re all better, and looking forward to more wild stuff…

  8. So glad it wasnt anything serious. My hubby and I backpacked around Vietnam (north to south) but luckily didnt get ill once. Not even a blocked nose. Cant say the same for the near-death experiences I felt in my ride in the ‘death-cabs’ – and crossing roads in Hanoi! Glad we got back in one-piece though . FOOD = AMAZING. Vietnam will DEFINITELY SEE US AGAIN 🙂

  9. Have faith in World Nomads–they paid for my 2 day stay at the SOS clinic in Phnom Penh last February (about 1500$, amoebic dysentery). There was a bit of a hiccup but a tweet and response from the GM in Sydney fixed that up real quick. Love World Nomads.

    Glad to hear you’re feeling well again!

  10. Hi Kate^^!
    First of all, I want to say that lm really sorry to hear that. Im a Vietnamese student – major in tourism so i can understand ur problem ^^. SOS International Clinic in Hanoi is a clinic for the foreigner (Actually it ‘s very expensive and just suitable for foreigner who have work in vn long time) If u re backpack^^ tourist u can go some prestige domestic hospital or private clinic: Hong Ngoc, bach mai.. . I think it would be better ^^
    In Hanoi have a volunteer tour guide club – Hanoi kids club. They re free tour-guide . This is the link of the club webside :http://hanoikids.org/index.php?option=com_janews&view=janews&Itemid=1. ( in case u want to go vn once more time^^)
    Anyway, take care and i m glad to here that u re feeling better
    nice to meet u ^^

  11. Whoa, I’m really surprised by the hospital bill. I too had a malaria scare in Thailand and rushed to the hospital. Hours and blood tests later, I just had a mild flu and a bill that was roughly $30 USD, including the prescription medicine. I have no idea why your bill would have been so much. Glad it was nothing serious though!

  12. Jeez, thank God you’re feeling better! So the Asian health care system is not as bad as its reputation… but it’ll cost ya! Anyhow I’m just glad you’re feeling better, that’s all that matters. But yes, being sick abroad is the worst thing!

  13. Stay healthy Kate! My wife and I got sick in Cambodia, real sick for days, and it was scary…I had one of those ‘I want my mommy’ moments, it passed and I didn’t want my mommy anymore but it made me appreciate my relative state of health and now we roll out with travel insurance just in case.

  14. ScrotalTerrorist (Chris)

    SOS international are pretty awesome. I used them twice in Vietnam when I was convinced that I had rabies after being attacked by a pack of dogs on Catba island. Although it was pretty expensive, the service was great, and I dont think I have rabies now so thats a plus (foaming at the keyboard)

  15. Oh man that is expensive!!! I had something very similar in Dalat, Vietnam – they saw me within minutes, took my blood gave me some fluids did an ultra sound and gave me three days worth of meds – I was panicking at how much this was all going to cost, but surprisingly we got it all for $15! I guess I may have got local rates!
    Has World Nomads paid up?

  16. Holy crap, Im shocked at the bill — although I guess I shouldn’t be. Here’s hoping your insurance will cover this (it’s what you got it for after all!)

  17. I got sick in India last time I was there. I had been warned to avoid not-bottled water and street food and I totally stuck to the tips, even if I love street food. I still don’t know what actually got me, probably expired milk somewhere at a restaurant, but it did get me really bad, I threw up for one whole night non-stop, in the morning I felt as if I hadn’t eaten anything for like a month. For the whole day after I didn’t feel like eating anything, and when my guide forced me at night to have dinner, after a spoon of white rice I went straight to throw up again.
    I must say, after that, I felt much better, but the night before I was completely forceless, when I was going to call someone, I fainted. What a horrible experience, I’m usually very careful with what I eat and I have a very healthy lifestyle, especially when I travel, as I know how difficult it can be when you are not within your comfort zone.
    Glad you didn’t have anything serious, really take care of yourself!

  18. Getting sick while you’re traveling or into a vacation is a total hassle! I experienced this before actually. I can’t enjoy everything because I’m so worried about myself. I just felt like staying in my bed wishing I would feel good within after taking my med.

  19. Hey there! “I have Malaria” was the first thing I thought too when I got really really sick the first time over here in North Eastern Thailand. Fever, totally dizzy and not able to leave the bathroom for 5 straight minutes. I always told friends at home “come on, don’t worry to much. not everybody gets Malaria…” but when I sat there, shivering….I thought “god damn it, what am I doing here”….;-)

    Fortunately it was – of course – not Malaria. But crazy how you automatically think of that when hanging out here in SEA…

    Glad you are fine again and try to keep it that way! 🙂

  20. Hey Kate,

    So glad you’re feeling better! How did you get penicillin without a prescription from a doctor though? I think I’m confused. haha

  21. Being sick when you’re alone far away from home is miserable.

    I remember being so sick I in Nepal once I couldn’t even make it to the bathroom (gross!). All I wanted was for my Mum to magically appear, give me a hug and make me some chicken soup.

    One big rule I also learnt was – never make a travel decision when sick.

    Glad it wasn’t anything more serious though.

  22. This last year I was in Crete for a fortnight and I had some pretty extreme stomach cramps for last three days and had to travel back with them. All I remember was being holed up in my hotel room alternately praying for death and wishing I could be in my bed at home.

  23. In my opinion you get good healt care on the local doctor´s offices in the big cities in many countries – and they are so much cheaper! I actually did catch malaria when I was travelling alone in Tanzania. I was lying straight out for four days, luckily I managed to make my way back to a good backpackers hostel in Dar es Salam, with a doctor´s office just a few blocks away – and I had my own treatment brought from Norway which I used after the bug was detected in my samples. It was actually not as scary as I would imagine – but it was far from a pleasant experience…. My best tips when you get sick on your own (except from seeing a doctor off course): find a good travelers hostel with friendly staff!

  24. Just in case if you get sick and god forbid you have to visit a physician or a hospital, you can have your medical profile with you at all times to help the physician have a better diagnosis on you.. the best way to carry this information with you is through internet… mysolace.com allows you to create your medical profile and choose a pass phrase to access it. You can set up your medical profile with all your medical history and print your medical card… carry the card with you at all times.. and if you get sick, show it to medical professionals and they can access your medical history by using your pass phrase…

  25. I’ve had the same scare while over landing in Africa for 17 weeks. It’s not good bush camping in middle of no where Africa and being deathly sick. Thought and was prepared it was malaria or dengue however it was a stomach bug. Doctor visit, 3 lab test, two drip bags, two steroids, two kinds of pills it all added up to 18.00 and that was paying tourist price. Travel On!

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